The Palestinian premier said Thursday that if Israel unilaterally imposed a new boundary with Palestinian areas he would respond by pushing for a single Arab-Jewish state — a move that could spell disaster for Israel.
A single country including Gaza, the West Bank and Israel would mean that the Jewish state would soon have an Arab majority. That would force Israel to choose between giving Palestinians the right to vote and risk losing the country's Jewish character, or becoming a minority-ruled country like apartheid South Africa (search).
On Friday, Israel said it would try to ease restrictions on Palestinians at security checkpoints to avert a mounting humanitarian crisis.
Also Friday, Israeli troops also swept into the West Bank town of Jenin, making arrests and trading gunfire with militants, Palestinian witnesses said.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned at the end of last year he would order unilateral separation from the Palestinian areas if peace talks do not show progress in the coming months.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia told The Associated Press that such unilateral moves would make the drive for a Palestinian state a "meaningless slogan."
"If the situation continues as it is now we will go for the one-state solution," he said.
Qureia said the binational state idea was his own idea, not official policy, though he said Palestinians suggested it shortly after Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell immediately rejected the idea of a single state on Thursday, saying only a two-country solution (search) to the violence would work.
For years, Israeli doves have cited the "demographic issue" in their calls for Israel to relinquish control of all or most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip as part of a peace treaty.
About 3.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and Gaza, in addition to 1.2 million Arab citizens of Israel. About 5.5 million Jews live in Israel, including those in West Bank, Gaza and Golan Heights settlements.
The past decade of Israel-Palestinian peace efforts has always been based on a two-state solution. The latest peace plan — the U.S.-backed "road map" — leads to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza by 2005. Abandoning that concept could throw Mideast politics into turmoil.
In the West Bank raids, the army arrested at least 15 Palestinians in the town of Jenin and two members of the militant Islamic Jihad (search) group in a nearby village, witnesses said.
The army, however, said it had arrested six people in Jenin.
Witnesses said more than 25 armored vehicles entered the refugee camp in the town and there were sporadic exchanges of fire between gunmen and troops, but no casualties were reported.
Among those detained were Attar Abu Remeli, a local leader from Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah party and two militants from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search), a militia loosely affiliated to Fatah.
Also arrested was the father and four brothers of a man who carried out a suicide bombing two years ago, witnesses said.
In conjunction with continued raids against suspected Palestinian militants, Israel said it would try to ease conditions for the Palestinian population, in particular at roadblocks and checkpoints.
"We will try wherever possible to differentiate between the treatment of the civilian population and the war on terror," Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim told Israel Radio.
The steps were decided upon at an emergency meeting of Israeli security heads held Thursday to asses the humanitarian situation in the Palestinian territories.
The situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is bordering on chaos and anarchy, a senior security official said speaking on condition of anonymity, adding that the meeting was apparently called in response to mounting international pressure on Israel.
New steps to be implemented in coming days include stationing at least one officer and an Arabic-speaking soldier at each checkpoint to reduce friction.
Also, officers in charge of the checkpoints will be given more authority to allow Palestinians to pass through checkpoints. Border crossings from Palestinian areas into neighboring Jordan and Egypt would also stay open for longer hours.
Palestinians charge that the dozens of checkpoints set up during the more-than three years of violence have devastated their economy and caused many severe hardships.
Israel says the checkpoints help stop suicide bombers entering the country.
Sharon has said that if peace talks do not show progress in the coming months, he will order "unilateral disengagement." This would entail imposing a temporary boundary in the West Bank and removing some Jewish settlements from areas to be evacuated.
Sharon has said his plan is meant to improve Israel's security.
Palestinians charge that the plan amounts to Israel's taking over large chunks of the West Bank. Specifically, they point to the route of a separation barrier Israel is already building.
Its planned route would cut deep into the West Bank in several places to include some Jewish settlements on the "Israeli" side. Other Palestinian areas would be encircled by Israeli territory.
Powell, speaking in Washington, said a single country would not be viable.
"We're committed to a two-state solution," Powell said in Washington. "I believe that's the only solution that will work: a state for the Palestinian people called Palestine and a Jewish state, state of Israel, which exists."
Some Israeli analysts and politicians have said that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's goal has always been a single state eventually dominated by Palestinians.
Arafat has often declared that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be decided by the higher Palestinian birth rate.
That shows "there is no real desire on the part of the Palestinians to create a state here and now," said Efraim Halevy, former head of the Mossad (search) secret service.
However, Arafat has said repeatedly over the past decade that he is committed to the agreements his signed with Israel, leading to a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Adopting the demographic argument, Sharon this week told hard-line members of his Likud Party that any peace accord would require removal of some Jewish settlements in the West Bank and creation of a Palestinian state.
Polls show Sharon's proposals enjoy considerable support among Israelis.